- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The David Beckham experiment in America may be ending before it could hardly begin.

After two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, the British soccer star is discussing a permanent move to top Italian club AC Milan, thus prematurely scuttling a high-profile effort to inject new life into the sport in the United States.

“The expectations and the hopes to use Beckham to drive a lot of interest and energy into the Galaxy - and by extension sell a lot of tickets in other markets and drive TV ratings - have been compromised,” said David Carter, founder of Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. “Clearly, it’s a disappointment across the board.”

Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles in 2007 had rock star elements. Major League Soccer and the Galaxy agreed to pay the player as much as $250 million over five years in a deal that included profit sharing and marketing rights. Already the most famous soccer star in the world and married to a pop star, the former Real Madrid and Manchester United midfielder was supposed to help launch MLS into the mainstream of American sports leagues.

But just 25 months after signing on with the Galaxy, Beckham has expressed a strong desire to return to Europe for good after spending the winter on loan with AC Milan, where he has flourished and has a better opportunity to play for England’s national team.

The opportunity for the Galaxy and MLS to cash in on his soccer prowess appears to be fading.

“I’m very, very disappointed,” said Andrei Markovits, a political science professor at the University of Michigan and co-author of the book “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism.” “I was absolutely convinced that if there was a person who could help soccer get into a bit of a different orbit it was only David Beckham, nobody else.”

The Beckham-Galaxy relationship was imperfect from the start. In 2007, he played only sparingly in his first season because of an ankle injury sustained during his time with Real Madrid. And though he returned healthy in 2008 and helped ensure sellouts at Home Depot Center, the team struggled, changed coaches and finished last in the Western Conference.

“The Americans are doing everything they can to improve the level and reputation of their game,” Beckham told reporters in Italy last week. “It’s a young league, and I think it needs another 10 years to become successful. I have to admit that, having played in Europe, sometimes it was frustrating playing in certain games.”

The Galaxy and their parent company, AEG, do not appear willing to let Beckham leave without a fight. The team rejected an initial offer from AC Milan last week, and several reports have suggested the Galaxy are asking for as much as $20 million.

“They understand the only way we do this is if, when this is all said and done, the Galaxy benefits,” AEG CEO Tim Leiweke told the Los Angeles Times. “If the Galaxy comes out better without David than with David, then we’ll take a look at it.”

Some soccer observers said Beckham’s potential departure, while disappointing, would not diminish the impact he had during his two years in America. Despite little success by the Galaxy on the pitch, they said Beckham’s mere presence brought MLS to the forefront of the public consciousness for the first time.

“I view it as a huge success,” ESPN soccer analyst Tommy Smyth said. “I could pick up many, many papers around the country, and I would see David Beckham in those papers. He made an awareness to the general public that most people would never dream of. He put MLS in the big window. I suppose they would have liked him to stay longer, but when he was here he brought a lot of fun to the game.”

Alexi Lalas, who was general manager of the Galaxy from 2006 until he was fired in August, offered a similar assessment.

“I think if he leaves, you’re delusional if you think this was a failure by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “The impact the David Beckham signing had on the Galaxy, the league and the sport in general is hard to quantify. The interest, the raise of the level on the field and of the brand in the United States is incredible. I certainly don’t regret being a part of it.”

The question now is how the league and the Galaxy can regroup after spending considerable time, money and energy on a partnership that appears to be ending.

“If you’re MLS and the Galaxy, you find yourself trying to make the best out of a bad situation,” Carter said. “If you’re AEG and you own the Galaxy and Home Depot Center, you clearly have a lot of work to do to manage the expectations of your fans going forward.

“For many sports fans in Southern California, their first real glimpse at soccer was the ability to see Beckham, so without that, how do they captivate the interest of the casual fan, knowing that they’ve also harmed themselves with their core fan base?”

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